LANCASTER, N.H. — Like any good bonfire, the evening ritual at the Porcupine Freedom Festival deep in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, includes a drum circle, plumes of marijuana smoke, shared bottles of whiskey and spirited debate.
There are also guns. Lots of guns.
Colt .45s, Smith & Wessons, and Rugers hang on hips. A bearded man clings to an AK-47; a guy with a Mohawk has a shotgun with flowers coming out of the barrel strapped to his back. For this isn't your typical bacchanal in the woods. This is the libertarian version of Burning Man., where a kumbaya discussion around the campfire goes something like this:
"It's great to be around people who understand. I don't get how the left won't just admit that income tax is theft. Who cares if it's for a good cause? If I held you at gunpoint to pay for my mother's cancer treatment, wouldn't that still be theft?"
Once a year for the past 11 years, this campground in the northern part of the Granite State turns into a libertarian utopia. And this year, roughly 2,000 people — mostly white men — have paid between $45 and $100 to experience for one week what life would be like without the onerous mechanisms of laws, if the market ruled to the exclusion of all else. Want to wear a loincloth and sell moonshine, shop at an unregulated market that accepts Bitcoin and silver, or listen to a seminar called "How the Collapse of the State is Inevitable"? Then this is the place for you.
It certainly is the place for Pete Eyre, a muscular guy with an enormous beard, standing off to the side of the fire. At one point he wanted to be a cop, interning at the St. Paul, Minn., police department, enforcing many of the rules people have come here to disregard. He found the system too reactionary, he says, and now helps run an organization that films police misconduct. He shows off one of his many tattoos in the flickering light of the fire. It's an anarchist symbol tattoo covering an old American flag tat he got in his past life. "It's my journey," he says.
Then someone taps him on the shoulder. There's a kid having a bad trip in the bathroom, and in this hectic, anti-hierarchical festival, Eyre is the closest thing to an authority figure around.
"I am God," a longhaired 20-something repeats to the people babysitting him in a bathroom hallway. "I am a perfect logical machine."
Two girls huffing nitrous oxide from a balloon and a guy holding a needle come by. The guy with the needle says he has a chemical mixture that if injected will lessen the effects of hallucinogens. "I have the solution right in my hands," he says. Eyre decides it's a bad idea to inject the longhaired guy with a mystery drug — even if it could work in theory — and says he won't allow it to happen.
"Can anyone refute that it will work?" the guy with the needle asks.
It might as well have been the slogan for the whole glorious epic of the Porcupine Freedom Festival.
Porcfest — as it's known here — is put on by the Free State Project, a group dedicated to recruiting at least 20,000 libertarians to move to New Hampshire. The idea — that a group of this size can make a difference in a state with a low population — came from an essay in 2001 by then-Yale doctoral student and current Dartmouth lecturer Jason Sorens. Thirteen years later, the FSP has had nearly 16,000 people sign a "statement of intent" to move. The plan is that when 20,000 people sign the list, it will "trigger" a large migration. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 people have moved already.
This is a way to build a community. Even isolationists don't like to feel alone.
"In most places, if you try to go to a libertarian event, you're probably going to get three people," says Kamil Markowicz, an attendee from Indiana. "And one is going to be a tea party guy and the other a conspiracy theorist." Case in point: There's a guy here with a libertarian baseball team back home in Chicago, but he says he needed a few constitutional conservatives to fill out his roster.
The ideological motivations, which Free Staters discuss over homemade mead and beers, are relatively easy to understand. The U.S. government suffers from low approval ratings, we have been fighting wars for years without a satisfying result in sight, and privacy is slipping away. Why not just dissolve it all — or most of it_ and live as individuals? In other words, live like the porcupine: Let your lifestyle not encroach on others, but if someone comes at you, don't hesitate to protect yourself with quills. Or your AR-15.
"If we concentrate together, we can affect change," says Carla Gericke, president of the Free State Project. But what exactly that change would be, who even knows? For some, it means living outside the system; for others, changing the system from within.
By most counts, more than 20 Free Staters have been elected to the state House of Representatives (about 10 of whom currently serve), with many others serving in municipal government. In 2012, state Rep. Cynthia Chase, a Democrat, called them "the single biggest threat the state is facing today."
It's certainly an overstatement, but the Free Staters have been active in the political arena. They have helped repeal New Hampshire's knife laws, blocked implementation of a national ID system in the state and helped allow jurors to acquit defendants not because they think they are innocent but because they believe the law at issue is unjust.
And just as Free Staters have started to trickle into politics, some more-traditional types have found themselves drawn to Porcfest. Former senator Robert Smith is here trying to pick up votes for his campaign against Scott Brown in the Republican primary to be held in September, and Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, is here, despite drawing the ire of libertarians in 2007 when he said that Ron Paul should drop out of the presidential debates. ("People here probably wouldn't be too happy," he says at the campfire one night after a 20-something came up and started rambling about "brain drugs." "But fortunately no one knows who I am here.")
"We can't achieve anything by one method alone," says Mike Sylvia, a state representative and the 589th person to move to New Hampshire for the cause. By his count, the FSP has its eyes on about 47 people it might try to recruit to run in the coming years. A lot of people at Porcfest are software engineers, Web developers, IT support team members and telecommunications workers. Their jobs are relatively mobile, and uprooting to rural New Hampshire isn't outside the realm of possibility.
And the best way to convince people to move, well, that's Porcfest.
The morning after the campfire, I check in with the security tent to see whether the longhaired, drug-addled kid from the night before is doing okay.
Anyone can act as a de facto security guard here, but members of the "Church of the Sword" — a group from Manchester that doesn't focus much on worship but does start its meetings with a "ritual of combat" involving foam swords — constitute the only organized group.
I'm told by a big, bearded man with a walking stick that the kid is fine (later I see him giving a very complicated presentation about cryptocurrency), but that I should move along because there is a possible security situation. A former member of the Free State Project who has advocated violence against the police may be trying to get into the campground, where he is no longer welcome. There aren't many rules here, but violence and bigotry can get you banned.
I leave to check out Agora Valley, the unregulated market in the middle of the campground.
At the entrance, a group sells silver that its members minted. Across from its stand, a food vendor (sans permit, sans safety inspection) sells hamburgers and hot dogs for Bitcoin, Dogecoin, precious metals, or, if you must, dollars (or "Federal Reserve Notes"). Cellphone service is bad out in the woods, so sometimes people have to buy a sausage here, and walk down the hill, over by the Bitcoin ATM, where reception is better, so they can pay.
Puns are everywhere. One popular T-shirt: "Kill the Precedent." One popular ice cream flavor: Open-Carry Cherry. (Or, playing on the big in-joke here, that without government nothing can get done: "Who Will Build the Rocky Roads?"). A tractor rumbles by, spilling brown sludge out of a bucket.
"It's okay, it's Agora Valley, it should be covered in sewage," says an onlooker eating breakfast across from an outdoor tattooing station. "It's unregulated and we have no infrastructure."
It had been raining, so the sludge mixed well into the muddy path; the smell blended with the heady fumes of armpits, pot, and brewing beer. Tents had flooded the night before, the mosquitoes were out, and a festival radio station pumped its broadcast about whether the topless woman at the campground should have been asked to put her shirt back on. (She did cover up after a group of parents complained on behalf of the several dozen small children wandering the festival grounds.)
Just past the booth where a man sells make-your-own-firearms blueprints (his wife would rather him stick to his day job of running a cabinet-making magazine), there is a series of tents hosting seminars all day. A former Army officer named Bill Buppert is talking about how "we shouldn't think of secession as a four-letter word."
At an adjacent tent, a guy discusses the benefits of a paleo diet. If you stay healthy enough, he says, perhaps you can live long enough to make it to the "singularity" where you can live forever by tapping into artificial intelligence. Eat like a caveman, he says, so you can live long enough to become a robot.
"The thing about a lot of libertarians," James O'Beirne, a software engineer living in New York City, says coming out of the paleo seminar, "is that we are often analytical to an irrational extent."
There's a geodesic dome nicknamed the "orgy tent," but the biggest party at Porcfest takes place near the end of the week-long gathering. It's Buzz's Big Gay Dance Party, put on by Buzz Webb, 47, who goes by the "Duchess of Dykedom," wears combat boots and has close-cropped, dyed-white hair.
Webb says that when she came to Porcfest for the first time in 2009, she couldn't find another gay person.
"I thought we were completely underrepresented," she says between dance-related carpentry projects. "I was like, 'Have I made a huge mistake coming?' "
Instead of high-tailing it out, she decided to throw her own party, one that both celebrated and poked fun at gay culture. Yes, 90 percent of the people who show up are straight, and yes, some people show up in pink speedos and wigs purely as a joke, but Buzz feels good about it.
"What makes all this so great is that it's a real community, and one open to you doing what you want to do," she says. In 2009, Buzz moved from Provincetown, Mass., to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project. But three years later she had to move back because of money issues.
"I miss it here," she says. "People here really believe in live and let live."
Most of the time, anyway.
In 2012, according to Free State Project president Gericke, a group from Connecticut set up a tent serving Polish food. To attract customers, the vendors would rev up a chain saw. The combination of the chain saw and some rowdy evenings bothered enough people in Agora Valley that a few other vendors went into town to print fliers urging Porcfest attendees to boycott their food.
That was fine with the restaurateurs, who offered a 50 percent discount to any customer who brought in one of the fliers. It was the perfect example of the free market at work.
Until the next year, when Porcupine Festival organizers let them know the chainsaw antics wouldn't be welcome back. There had been too many complaints.
It's a free society here unless you break the rules. There are no cops, unless you get on the wrong side of the Church of the Sword. The griddles may be unregulated, but the eggs are USDA-approved.
A true libertarian utopia will always remain a hypothetical, even on a small scale. But perhaps for the true believers, it's better that way. For as long as it remains the mystery solution for our country's ills, who can ever refute that it would work?